Using Color Theory to Deconstruct Race: Part Two

Editor’s Note: This article is part two of a two-part series on using color theory to deconstruct race. Click here to read part one.

Deconstructing race using color theory is a profound experience. As discussed in part one, racial categories for human beings have been constructed into five colors: black, white, red, yellow, and brown. By defining white and black and doing a simple comparative analysis, the colors used to categorize race are easily debunked. The skin color of every human being is on a spectrum of different hues and values of brown. After discussing this concept in class, we now want to take color theory to the next level: matching student skin colors with paint.

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Skin Colors Have Formulas

Every skin color can be made by mixing paint. Blue, red, yellow, and white paint can make virtually any human skin color. Every skin color is essentially a different ratio of the primary colors and white. Of course, there are variations of each primary color that would work too, such as red oxide or yellow oxide. Regardless of the pigment variations, by using those four general paint colors students can match their own skin colors. Students can even keep track of their skin color formulas in order to remake them in paint.

The Formula Tally Sheet

A simple worksheet can keep track of the ratio of colors that create each individual skin color. The formula sheet has the names of the four colors on it so students can make a tally mark each time they add increments of colors to their paint mix. The formula sheet also has an empty box for students to fill in once they have successfully matched their skin color. I like for students to name their color using the word “brown” in the title, such as “Matt Brown.” Here is a basic formula tally sheet that can be used for students to calculate their final skin color formula.

Skin Tone Mixing Tally Sheet

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The Step-By-Step Slideshow

A great way to begin is to match your own skin color and document each step along the way in a slideshow (you can see the slideshow I use with my class by clicking here). Showing students each step as you discuss them is paramount. The first step before you begin is to calibrate your increments. If you are using squeeze bottles of paint, establish the amount of what one drop of any given color consists of. Another method is to place small puddles of each color on a palette and scoop one drop of each color with a palette knife as it is being added. The important part is knowing what amount is considered “one” as you tally up the different amounts of paint your skin color consists of.

Matching Your Skin Color to Demonstrate

Once students receive their formula sheet, have them flip it over. Have students write the four color names down and do a walk through together. It is essential to do a demonstration with a slideshow that illustrates each step. This will give students a chance to practice tallying up the color increments and predict what the next steps will be. Begin by mixing one drop of blue, red, and yellow. Depending on the paint pigment variations being used, the color should result in a dark purple, gray, or brown.

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Each time a color is mixed, hold it up to the skin color being matched and ask the following questions:

  • Is the paint color too light or too dark?
  • What color hues do we need to add?

Both of these questions ask students to think in terms of art vocabulary. When deciding if the paint color is too light or too dark, students are investigating value. When deciding what colors to add, they are experimenting with the concept of hue.

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Making the Demonstration Interactive

For the slideshow to be engaging and interactive, provide images of each step. For example, the first image should show one drop of blue and one drop of red. The second image should then show the tally sheet recording one drop of each. The third image can then show the new color after it is mixed together. That is the routine of the process: apply the amount of color being added, tally it up on the sheet, and then mix the new color. Constantly call on students to predict the next step. When you ask students if a color is too dark or too light, they can call out their responses. Ask your students about the hue, and what they think should be added next. After getting their responses and predictions, you show them the next slide to see how closely their guesses compare to your own process. After each time you add increments to the formula, have students keep track of them on the back of their formula sheets with along with you.

 

Match and Release

Once you come up with the color that closely matches your skin color, add up the tally marks. Write down the official formula for your own personal brown. You can then ask students to remake that color to see what they get or release them to begin matching their own skin colors. Students should all start with the same formula. By starting from the same common pigments, the connection between human skin color becomes much more integrated and obvious.

The final skin color formula for “Matt Brown” was:

Blue-1

Red Oxide-3

Yellow Oxide-3

White-13

skin-tone-mixed

Anticipate Student Questions

Once you release students to match their own skin colors, there will be struggle and confusion at first. The original color made will be dark. Students often will want to be told what to add. Resist the temptation to tell them. Continue to ask questions about the hue and value to allow them to experiment or form their own conclusions. One tip is that colors lighten easily, but it is much tougher to darken them. Go easy when adding white…

Closure

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Once students get a color that feels like a strong skin match, have them tally up their formulas. Students should try to remake the formula from scratch to see if they get the same skin color brown. Once everyone is finished, have some butcher paper on the wall with a square grid drawn on it. Have each student paint in their skin color in one square. You could take it a step further and have them write their formulas up as well. When each square is finished you will have a quilt displaying your students’ different skin colors. When looking at the variety of colors it becomes quite clear: every skin color belongs on the spectrum of brown.

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What questions come up for you as read this article?

What do you think of doing this type of work?

 

Matt Christenson

Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.

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  • Brenda McC

    fabulous lesson–I will be using this in my class!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hi Brenda! Good luck bringing this to class. I think you’ll find that students become really interested in this type of investigation.

  • Anna Nichols

    Hurray! I LOVED these articles. Outstanding job, Matt! For years I have taught my middle school students that we are all shades of brown and that it takes EVERY color to make our skin tones. It is so much fun to watch kids discover how to mix just the right color to match their own skin. Your idea to have each student paint a section of the “class quilt” with their own color is wonderful! These are absolutely brilliant articles. Thank you!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Anna! Thanks so much for sharing. It’s exciting to hear that you have so much experience bringing these ideas to your students already! Do you have any other ideas for different ways to approach this topic?

      • Anna Nichols

        Like you, I get the kids to compare their skin to the paper and ask, “Are you ‘white’ like the paper?” They always shake their heads in puzzlement. When teaching how to make skin tones, I emphasize that it takes all three primaries to make brown, and that EVERYONE is a variation of brown. This lesson is the great equalizer – we all have every single color of the rainbow in our skin – the kids have already used red, yellow, and blue to mix the colors of the color wheel by the time we get to skin tones. I teach in a very diverse middle school in central Alabama – kids need to see concrete examples of what we all have in common and I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see these articles! Thank you again!

  • this is amazing, i want to do this with my 140 art 1 kids in a diverse high school. What type of paint did you use? and how did you get perfect drops?

    • Matt Christenson

      Howdy Dilunde! I use zero VOC, interior acrylic latex house paint from Kelly-Moore. The drops are definitely not as consistent as they would be if you were using the machines in the paint store, but we try to get as close as we can. I think the most accurate way is to squeeze a bit of each color on a palette and use a palette knife grab a “drop” at a time. I also have students try to squeeze a drop from our paint tubes, but is definitely not an accurate way to create a formula.

  • Melissa Gilbertsen

    What a great lesson – weirdly the concept of how to mix browns has come up repeatedly the last few days…this might be exactly where we need to go in the next week. I have a number of students of different ethnic backgrounds and it would be powerful to get us to think about how alike we are rather than how different. Super coolio! Thanks for the slide share as well! I was wondering if you have the examples of different folks you showed the first day? If not I’ll make one as setting the stage is really important here. Lovely idea – thanks so much for sharing!

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  • KAREN JOHNSON

    The powerpoint is not working?

    • Phaedra Mastrocola

      Yes, any chance we can get a new link for the slideshow?

  • Vanessa Powell

    The link to the powerpoint isn’t working. I would love to see the presentation! Help!